This chapter is a little late, like by a week. For those who anxiously await these chapters I hope you accept my humble apology. I have a book launch coming on September 1st and I’ve been running myself ragged. Hope you guys check out The Lost Village. It will be available everywhere in September.
Now, on with the story . . .
Doug ran into the forest, the wet undergrowth dragging at his legs until he was so deep in the stand of trees he could see neither house nor lights. There he stopped, bent forward, breathing in vast spasms, his sweaty hands resting on his trembling knees. Bile gurgled at the back of his throat. No longer able to hold it back he let go. His head spun and his ears whined. A sudden and irrational fear crawled up from his belly along with the undigested food and wine. He made no effort to control the spasms, and the fear was something beyond him, all mixed up with his drunkenness, all mixed up with the darkness in his life. For a moment he was certain of nothing, not even his physical existence.
He staggered away wandering aimlessly through the forest. He tried to focus his thoughts on the chaos of the past eighteen hours, but it was no use. There was no sense to be made of it and Doug realized that he was far too drunk for any sort of rational thought.
Exhausted, he staggered and went down, a vast darkness settling over him like a shroud. His final thought before the night claimed him was of the dogs. Where were they? Why weren’t they making a meal of him?
Doug awoke to a series of screams that, even at a distance, carried a freight of blind panic that made his skin clammy with fear. His first thought was of Annie, but he soon dismissed it. The screams were not hers. He knew her voice and this was not it. Besides, no harm would come to her here. Of this he was certain. She had something the old man wanted, and she would be protected until the day she could deliver it.
He sat up straining to make sense of the din. Now there were male voices added to the mix, shouts and commands. The earth was wet where he’d lain and it smelled ripe and hot beneath him. His mind churned with terrible images of death. He did not know what time it was. He had no idea how long he’d been out. His head thrummed like an abscessed tooth.
Soon the din became intermittent. Struggling to his feet he began to move toward it. Small animals scuttled before him. He could hear them moving through the palmettos. Presently he saw light. He stopped, seeking focus through the stand of trees. Though he could not articulate the light’s source, it was bright and it seemed to be coming from the same direction as the sound. He froze. There was a tall figure several yards ahead of him, at first still, then moving. Concentrating, he tried to fix the figure against the matrix of light and shadow, but could make no sense of it.
It had to be a ghost, so quiet, so casual. Or perhaps it was merely an illusion, conjured by his taxed mind. He watched it as a deer might watch a hunter. It seemed to glide through the forest unhindered by trees and undergrowth. Impossible, he knew, but still, the illusion persisted. Fear settled in his bowels, not the logical fear of adulthood born from life’s experience, this was something else, the barbed irrational fear of childhood, elemental fear.
But fear alone was not enough to stem his curiosity. He moved forward following the ghost until he came to a small clearing lit by an open fire. Now he could see several ghosts, or perhaps they were men, he could not be sure, for the figures seemed fluid, backlit by flames. Two of them seemed to be staring down at something on the ground. The tall figure Doug had seen only moments ago was no longer visible.
He inched closer trying to make sense of it all.
Was there some sort of ritual afoot?
The screams he’d heard earlier had now been reduced to whimpering. The voice was that of a child, or perhaps a woman. Doug chanced a few more tentative steps closer to the illusion, straining to see with his eyes what his mind did not want him to see. As the scene before him became clear he felt his sanity slipping by degrees.
De Roché and Du Lac stood in the center of the circle, and out beyond them at the very edge of the clearing stood Joe Remy with three leashed Dobermans. The dogs were working against their restraints, their mouths frothing. There was blood in their eyes and on their snouts. Beside Remy stood Theo. Theo showed no emotion. Remy’s eyes were bright with terror.
“She ran,” Du Lac was saying to nobody in particular, his eyes fixed on the object at his feet. “I tried to stop her but she was drunk and she just slipped out of my grasp. I tried to warn her but she wouldn’t listen. Oh, dear God, what do we do now?”
“She’s still alive,” De Roché said without emotion. “I don’t know how, but she is.”
“But what do we do, Edmund?”
“I’ll take care of it,” De Roché said.
“I have men, and they have shovels.”
“But she’s not dead.”
“She soon will be.”
Doug suddenly realized why the dogs had left him alone. They’d been busy elsewhere.
On the ground at De Roché’s feet lay Lilly, Du Lac’s wife or girlfriend, or whatever the hell she was. It was obvious that she’d been mauled nearly to death by the Dobermans; the ground around her ruined body was covered in something dark and wet. Doug could not see the woman well enough in the dim light to ascertain how much damage had been done to her. He guessed that was a good thing.
“What is this?” asked Du Lac gesturing toward the fire pit.
“Sometimes my men get bored,” De Roché explained. “So they come here and have a fire. Gives them a focus, something to do during the long nights.”
“No,” said Du Lac, backing away a careful step. “This is more than a relief from boredom. This is a place of ritual. The firestones are set in the shape of a pentagram. And Lilly ran directly here, as if she was drawn to it.”
“Don’t be silly, Alistair,” De Roché said dismissively.
“No, I’m sure, Edmund. I chased her. And I saw something.”
“What did you see?”
“I don’t know. A man, but not a man. Tall with a black robe and hood. He was with her when I got here. He was doing something to her. When he saw me he disappeared. Then the dogs arrived. The dogs did not even come near me. They wanted her.”
“Now you listen to me,” De Roché said. “You need to focus on the business at hand.” De Roché turned toward the dogs and their handler. “Remy!” he said. “Take the dogs back to their kennel. I will deal with you later.”
“But he’s right,” Remy said, his eyes rheumy with fear. “He was here. I saw him, I swear. That’s why I let the dogs go.”
“Remy, shut up!” De Roché barked. “The dogs were not chasing a phantom. They were chasing this stupid woman. Do you understand?”
“But you weren’t here,” Remy insisted. “You didn’t see what I saw.”
“One more word out of you, Remy . . .”
“Joe!” Theo warned.
“Get out of my sight,” De Roché said.
“Come on, Joe,” Theo said, taking Remy by the arm and leading him away from the carnage.
“Gather up Savage,” De Roché said to his departing security chief. “I need you two back here pronto with shovels.”
“Yes, sir.” In a moment he and Remy and the leashed animals were out beyond the circle of flames moving toward the kennel.
On the ground the woman’s whimpering had ceased.
Du Lac knelt down beside her. “I think she’s dead,” he said. “Dear God.”
“Now you listen to me, Alistair,” De Roché said. “We cannot let our emotions cloud our judgment here. There’s too much at stake.”
“But I don’t understand, Edmund. What did the dog handler see? What did I see? ”
“Nothing,” said De Roché . “He’s a fool and he saw nothing. Do you understand?”
“No buts, Alistair. Do you understand me?”
Evidently De Roché’s tone was enough to silence his subordinate, for he stopped arguing.
“Now,” De Roché said, his tone signaling new business. “Who was this woman?”
“Yes, Lilly. I know her name. Who was she?”
“An escort. From one of the Tampa agencies.”
“I hope you were discreet.”
Du Lac stood up. “Yes, Edmund. My staff is nothing but discreet. No real names are ever given. Credit cards are untraceable.”
“All right then, I need you to leave now,” De Roché said. “Go home and forget what you saw here. Everything will be taken care of.” Du Lac did as he was told. He turned and began retracing his footsteps back the way he’d come, the sound of rolling thunder following him like an omen as he went.
Doug had seen and heard enough. He began backing carefully into the forest, his mind reeling. The Collector had been here tonight. That’s who he’d seen moving through the forest. Remy had seen him too, as well as Du Lac. He had done something to Lilly before the dogs had had their way with her. There could be no doubt. And De Roché was afraid. Doug knew this with certainty.
As he began his turn a twig snapped beneath his shoe. Doug stopped, rooted to the spot. There was no way to avoid being seen. For a long moment the old man simply stared across the expanse of lit clearing. Then he nodded a short, sharp nod that was plainly acknowledgement. I see you, it said. And I know what you’ve seen and heard here tonight. Then the old man turned and walked toward the row of cypresses that lined the edge of the clearing.
Sometime later Doug entered the house through the kitchen’s rear entrance. The door was unlocked and there was not a soul about. He stole up the stairs and into Annie’s room, undressed and sat on the edge of the bed watching her sleep. He’d never felt this desperate. He wanted to scoop her up and carry her away from this terrible house. But he knew she would not go. He knew that he’d somehow lost her to the power of this place, and he had to figure out how to get her back.
They slept the remainder of that night on Annie’s childhood bed; arms around each other; long exhausted sleep. If anything stirred in the mansion, Doug did not hear it. But once, in the night he thought he heard the distant cacophony of beating wings. Birds, his subconscious mind registered , and then he remembered and he was afraid. The dim residue of a night filled with confusion and death lingered in his dreaming mind, but whenever he forced his thoughts to focus on the chaos inside the dreams the images fragmented and scattered like a thousand spooked and flailing bats.
Through his lace of sleep Doug’s mind picked up a signal from some distant and impossible place. Please, mister, my name is Trinity. I’m in a dark place being kept by dark things. You have to find me! You have to help me!
I can’t, Doug told the pleading voice. I don’t know how.
But you must, the child insisted. It’s the only way to help Annie, and it’s the only way to save the baby!
Doug came awake in a cold sweat, breathing in ragged and desperate gasps. “Trinity?” he called out, before he could stop the expulsion. “Where are you? How do you know about Annie and the baby?” He heard the words echoing inside his head, echoing inside the room. He glanced over at Annie, afraid that his outburst had startled her awake. It hadn’t. She was fast asleep, lying on her side, curled up like a child. Who are you, Trinity? Why are you calling out to me? How in God’s name am I supposed to help you? I can’t even help myself. This time the child did not answer his desperate summons.
He lay back down in restless thought. Outside the wind had come up, howling around the eves, thunder roamed the heavens, and lightening lashed the sky. The flight of birds had either moved on or taken shelter from the storm, for their noise could no longer be heard. And as Doug fell back into a dreamless slumber, rain cried the tears of a child on the window.
Coming next week: The Artifact. Part Two of Soul Thief.